“Responding to Suffering with Compassion”

The week before Christmas, we were privileged to sing once again at a hospice where we regularly do.  Since these visits are not associated with particular singing requests, we often sing softly in the hallways between rooms and ask at each room, after consulting with the staff, if patients or loved ones would like us to enter and sing.  We have found that for us and for the places we support, both requests and this more improvisational style works.

On this visit, after warming up in the lobby and checking in with staff about which rooms might invite music, we went to those identified to introduce ourselves and ask if they wanted singing.  We do not know what we will find when invited into a room.  In what state are the people in the room?  What do they want or need in this moment?  What perspectives do they hold?

The staff suggested a particular room to begin.  When we approached, the two people inside, a mother and daughter, were awake and eager for music.  We asked if they had any holiday requests and based on their responses, we selected several of the more upbeat holiday songs that we had prepared, such as “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls”.  Throughout the year, we sing almost strictly Threshold choir music, but during the holidays, we vary this as holiday music has great meaning for many.  The women sang along with us, creating an atmosphere of impromptu caroling, bringing in the spirit of the season.  After singing about three songs, the daughter thanked us, a usual sign that they release us, that it’s time for us to go.  We thanked them and wished them the best for the holidays.

The next room the staff suggested was just down the hall.  They had heard us singing and warmly invited us in.  There were similarly two women in this room.  However, both were about the same age, perhaps late 50’s, and here was a more somber atmosphere.  After the two women and we briefly settled into the space and asked if they had any requests, we chose “What Child Is This” for them.  Almost immediately, they both began to weep silently.  One of the women, who had sat down on a chair across the room, went to the bedside of the other woman to hold her hand.  We continued to sing as they wept together, holding hands.  When we had finished the song, they thanked us, still with tears in their eyes.  We wished them the best for the holidays, grasping their hands before walking out silently.

Our last two rooms had one woman each.  The first was awake, alert, and sitting up in a chair.  We selected some of the more secular holiday songs, such as “Silver Bells” and “Let It Snow.”  She gratefully listened and seemed to find nostalgia and peace in the songs.  She shared some of her story with us, where she was from, and her extensive music and singing background.  We sang about three pieces, she thanked us with a smile on her face as we departed.  In the last room, we found a comatose woman.  The staff had directed us to her, and we sang “Silent Night” to her very softly before wishing her peaceful journey and exiting.  We asked at a couple more rooms and their tenants kindly declined music.  Finally, we asked the nurse at the nursing station if he would like any music, and he declined, though he and they usually say yes.  Their song is the often the last we sing on our visits.

During rehearsals, we not only practice learning music and singing, but holding space and connecting deeply with each other and with the person or persons for and with whom we sing.  It is not uncommon for us to be met with tears, particularly when singing songs that have particular meaning for people, as many holiday songs do, or one of the Threshold choir songs with their powerful and simple messages.  It is our privilege to carry this vehicle of respite or release, to respond to the suffering we meet or see not with shared suffering, but with compassion.  This is our goal, at least, and we are grateful when we have listened well enough to achieve it together.  Best wishes for a new year full of connection, community, and compassion.

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